T-shirt Trends: Selling Through Selection, Service and Customization

Variety is not only the spice of life! It’s also a key ingredient to a successful cart or kiosk T-shirt business.

“It’s important to have a variety of T-shirts,” says Kevin Stephens. He and his wife, Angela, co-owns By God’s Design, a cart offering T-shirts and other products with religious themes. “The more [customers have] to choose from, the better. You get repeat customers that way. With variety, they come back to see new T-shirts.

Hasan Sultan, owner of Citicolors, a cart and an inline store in Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst, NJ, agrees that having a large selection of merchandise is crucial.

Sultan benefits from having two retail operations in the same shopping center: a cart and an inline store. Although he offers the same core products in both locations, the inline store has a broader selection.

The cart funnels customers to the inline store, where he has customizing equipment. He can accommodate consumers who want names, pictures, or designs added to their T-shirts. He captures the quick-hit impulse sales between the two locations and the customers who wish to design their own. More customers are opting for this each year.

Connect With The Shoppers

According to the NPD Group, a market researcher based in Port Washington, NY, the US T-shirt market totaled more than $22 billion in 2006. This is an increase of 8.4% from the prior year. Women’s T-shirt sales fared better than men’s, rising 11% in 2006 compared to men’s T-shirts, up less than four percent.

T-shirts have enjoyed solid sales for decades as a fashion staple for men and women, kids and adults. They range from carts and kiosks in large part because tees can be priced right for impulse sales. Moreover, they appeal to a wide range of customers.

Add a location in the middle of the mall, where retailers can show off their latest designs front and center!

But as every savvy retailer knows, today’s shoppers want the products they buy to be all about them. The product should speak of their individuality, sense of humor, or style.

T-shirt customization is extensive, along with off-the-shelf designs that speak to specific shoppers’ interests, from rock band tees to Christian-themed shirts to “green tees” for the increasing number of shoppers who want to look great while lending Mother Nature a hand.

Andreea Ayers says shoppers are more than ready to spend on T-shirts they can connect with on a personal level. Ayers is the founder of Boulder, CO-based wholesaler Tees for Change. It offers T-shirts for women bearing such phrases as “Seek Balance” and “Choose Happiness.” Additionally, the tees are made of organic cotton and bamboo, which eco-conscious consumers flock to in ever-increasing numbers.

According to the Organic Exchange, an Oakland, CA, non-profit that promotes organic agriculture, sales of organic cotton products increased to $583 million in 2005, more than doubling from $245 million in 2001. The group expects organic cotton sales to top $2.6 billion by the end of 2008.

Aim To Make Them Smile!

A nearly sure-fire way to make a personal connection with consumers is through humor, says Lorri Carter, director of product development for Kerusso, Inc., a wholesaler of Christian apparel based in Berryville, AR, that has a start-up package for cart and kiosk operators (with more than two dozen currently in operation).

We have family-friendly, faith-based products which give the mall a good image,” says Kerusso’s specialty retail manager, Zsolt Gomory. The company has a start-up package for carts and kiosks that costs about $5,000, including initial inventory, primarily T-shirts but also some hats, some long-sleeve items, some hooded sweatshirts, and some jewelry. With revenues of more than $11 million in 2007, the company knows what it takes to retail its products.

The Stephenses, who launched their By God’s Design cart in May 2007 featuring Kerusso products, say they found success by filling a void in their area of St. Louis. “Several Christian bookstores had closed around here, so to have Christian T-shirts was an advantage,” Kevin Stephens says. Price points range from $9.99 for a toddler tee to $16.99 for adult sizes.

Adam Solo, president of The T-shirt Diner, an inline retailer and franchisor in Tampa, FL, also sells a significant amount of humorous tees at his two company-owned Florida inlines in Westshore Plaza Mall in Tampa and Brandon Towncenter in Brandon. He sells T-shirts for women, men, children, babies, and pets starting at $19, with many of his customers opting for the humorous tees over anything else.

Customize It To Attract Buyers

Canadian specialty retail entrepreneur Ali Kamal owns a half-dozen carts and kiosks under the name Generation, plus two Rock On inline stores, with his headquarters in Pickering, Ontario. He started by selling off-the-shelf tees on carts but expanded in several ways.

After countless customer requests for music- and entertainment-related items, he launched two Rock On inline stores focusing on rock ‘n roll T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, and fashion accessories such as belt buckles and jewelry. He expanded on Kamal’s Generation carts and kiosks by offering custom printing.

Customizing is pretty much all we do,” says Teresa Diaz, who, with her husband, Carlos, co-owns Apparel Designs by Soulmates, a kiosk at the Orlando International Airport in Orlando, FL.

Using a heat press to apply rhinestones, Diaz says that she can customize items such as T-shirts, tank tops, jean jackets, purses, and gloves on the spot in two to four minutes. The system “works well in an airport where people are in a hurry,” she says.

Customers can choose from 30 designs, such as a butterfly, an eagle, or a flamingo, and sayings like “Drama Queen” or “Super Mom” or develop their phrases. Retail prices range from a children’s T-shirt at $14.50 to an adult long-sleeved T-shirt at $28.

Customization also is a key to the success of Common Ground Import & Export, LLC, doing business as Florida T-shirts Plus in Lake Buena Vista, FL. The company has three kiosks in the Orlando area and a factory in Windermere, FL. The kiosks are outfitted with a single-head embroidery machine for on-site embroidery.

Packages That Sell Well

Some T-shirt makers opt for simplicity in the actual T-shirt design, then go the extra mile in packaging their products to fly off the shelves.

For example, Wholesaler Cherry Tee in Brooklyn, NY, offers a collection of unadorned cotton T-shirts and gift sets beautifully packaged in buckets, totes, crates, and jars. The line has been featured in consumer magazines, including “O,” Real Simple, and Vanity Fair.

Retailers love the packaging, too. “Because they’re in the buckets, crates, etc., they’re straightforward to merchandise,” says Deborah Brener Zolan, the creative director of Cherry Tee.

Multiple shirts are packaged together in gift sets, including “Tee Samplers” that look like Fruit-of-the-Month selections, a “Tote of Tees” that includes four styles of tees packed in a chic cotton canvas bucket tote and the newest gift item, the “Jam ‘n Tee Jar,” a vintage Mason jar filled with two Rainier Tissue tees and a cherry jelly treat.

Don’t Forget To Make a Statement!

The bottom line for shoppers is that with a great T-shirt, “You can express yourself,”

Individual shoppers, retailers, and suppliers are happy to oblige whatever that means! They are here with substantial stock selections and endless customizing choices.

No matter which specific T-shirt trends emerge in the years to come, the category will continue to be a solid seller. Solo says, “People have always enjoyed T-shirts and always will.